MILWAUKEE – Amateur bracketologists and the folks who set betting lines in Vegas seem to hold a similar opinion of the Gophers men's basketball team.

They're not all that impressed.

How often is a No. 5 seed a one-point underdog against a No. 12 in the NCAA tournament? Betting lines don't decide outcomes, of course, but it's an interesting subplot as the Gophers return to the Big Dance.

The Gophers opened as slight favorites over Middle Tennessee when brackets were unveiled. That idea flipped in Vegas and presumably a lot of $5 office pools. MTSU's upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State last March is still fresh in everyone's mind.

To avoid a one-and-done exit, the Gophers must follow a script that guided their historic turnaround, though their blueprint was altered when guard Akeem Springs suffered a season-ending injury in the Big Ten tournament.

Here is one man's roadmap to the second round:

Avoid stage fright

March Madness can be a tug-of-war of emotions for newbies. MTSU has the edge in tournament experience. The Gophers won't have a senior in uniform or any player who has participated in the tournament.

Tournament nerves can affect any team, even those that make annual appearances. The Gophers need to show poise and settle into the game as quickly as possible.

"It's going to be hard, but we have to make sure everyone is locked in from the start of the game," point guard Nate Mason said.

The Gophers trailed Michigan by double digits early in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. They can't afford to put themselves in a spot where they're forced to play catch-up the whole game.

No foul trouble

A balanced lineup served them well this season, but that balance masked their lack of depth. Their firepower took a considerable hit with Springs' injury.

Richard Pitino basically has six players he trusts with extended minutes — at least 20 per game. A shortened rotation is fine in tournament play because it's a game-by-game deal. The long view isn't required anymore.

However, the Gophers have a razor-thin margin in terms of foul trouble. That means Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy can't afford to pick up silly fouls that will force them to spend long stretches on the bench.

"[We] both have to do a better job of just feeling out the refs and what they're going to call and how they're going to let us play," Murphy said.

Lynch did a better job of that the final month of the Big Ten season after fouling out eight times in conference games. The Gophers are significantly tougher when he's on the floor. If he can play at least 28 minutes, the Gophers' chance of winning seems high.

"I think he's learning how to defend without fouling," Pitino said. "He's being smarter when to take risks, when not to take risks."

Pitino needs his starters to log heavy minutes, perhaps the whole game for a few. The coaching staff has spent time in practice preparing Michael Hurt and Ahmad Gilbert to play. But realistically, in the heat of action, coaches stick with players who have been regular contributors.

"I don't think you can reinvent [the rotation]," Pitino said.

Stars play like stars

Springs' absence makes it even more imperative that Mason plays like a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Teammates follow his lead.

"I'm prepared to play 40 minutes if Coach needs that," Mason said.

As point guard, he also must dictate how the offense will attack MTSU's 1-3-1 defense that morphs into a 2-3 zone. The Gophers haven't seen that look this season.

"It's kind of weird," Mason said.

Mason can't do it alone. MTSU won 30 games behind three talented seniors: Reggie Upshaw, Giddy Potts and JaCorey Williams, Conference USA's Player of the Year.

The Gophers' top players — Mason, Murphy, Lynch and Amir Coffey — must outperform MTSU's stars to win.

"We want to send a message that we're here and not going to back down," Murphy said.

Chip Scoggins •